Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies

I don’t usually read Christian books during our summer vacation. I take a couple away with me, worthy inclusions in a tottering pile of books, but my hand reaches for the novels and the Christian books remain untouched. But last summer was different. I picked up Tim Challies’s The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, skimmed the first few pages, and enjoyed them so much that I read it cover-to-cover in a few days.

It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped than Tim Challies to write a book about the impact of technology on the Christian life. He’s a husband, father, and pastor; a web designer by trade; and a popular evangelical blogger (at Living a life interrupted by the ‘beep’, in the glow of the latest iDevice, he began to suspect his technologies owned him as much as he owned them. The Next Story is the fruit of his reflections. Its goal is to enable us to live in the “sweet spot” where practice, theory and theology overlap, helping us to use technology in a way that’s thoughtful and biblically informed.

The title of The Next Story refers to the fact that a new digital era has just begun, and we don’t yet know what ‘the next story’ will look like. Challies encourages us not to reject technology, for it’s a good gift of God, but also to use it carefully, for it’s a powerful enabler of our idols. He warns that technology tends to become “mythic”, so that we assume it always existed and no longer examine it critically. Yet each new technology carries hidden ideologies that impact how we live and view the world. From oral transmission, to the written word, to the printed word, to the telegraph, to the television, to the internet… with each leap forward in the way we communicate and entertain ourselves, power shifts, society morphs, and even our brains change shape. Challies encourages us to “talk to our tech”, to question its impact and use it with “disciplined discernment”.

 In the second, longer part of the book, Challies gets practical, riffing on six themes that help us think through the effect of technology on our lives. With each issue, he digs deep into the Bible and the impact of technology and recommends a course of godly action. Here are some of the many challenges I took away:

  • Communication: Do I value online relationships with people I’ll never meet over relationships in my family, church and community? 
  • Mediation/identity: Have I begun to feel more comfortable with mediated communication—emails, text messages, Twitter—than with face-to-face communication? 
  • Distraction: How much do I depend on the constant interruptions of emails, Facebook comments and text messages to make me feel important and valued? 
  • Information: Is my mind so flooded with small, constant snippets of information that I am overwhelmed, unable to read and reflect deeply? 
  • Truth/authority: Do I seek knowledge from true experts, or are my knowledge and beliefs crowd-sourced? 
  • Visibility and privacy: Would I be willing to make my web history public? How careful am I about what I write, view and make public online?

I particularly appreciated the questions for reflection at the end of each chapter; they helped me examine my own use of technology and led me to repentance and prayer.

There were a few points where I would have loved to ask some further questions of Challies. His use of the Bible was spot-on when it came to wisdom issues, but, while I appreciated the way he unpacked big theological ideas and applied them to the digital world, the links weren’t always clear to me. He also made some interesting points I’d love to see further fleshed out. Yes, the medium shapes the message, but what’s the real impact of the fact that we view preachers on screens, follow sermon outlines on PowerPoint, sing hymns from projected words, and read the Bible on electronic devices? And while I appreciated his detailed reflections on the negative impact of technology, I was surprised that a man who uses his blog so well for God’s glory didn’t spend more time on how to use the opportunities provided by technology to grow God’s kingdom.1

I thoroughly enjoyed The Next Story. Challies is an able thinker and writer: the history he describes is fascinating, the philosophy stimulating, and the theological and pastoral reflections insightful and challenging. I needed the lessons this book brought me, and I went away inspired and equipped to use technology in a more thoughtful and godly way. I encourage you to read it slowly and allow it to examine and shape you.

1. John Piper’s post Why and how I am tweeting is a good example of such a reflection. ↩

This post first appeared at The Briefing today.

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